NYC Construction Union Boss Accused of Links to Gambino Crime Family

James Cahill, former president of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council, used to lean hard on public officials. But since his October 1 indictment for solicitation of bribery, and the indictment of 10 other union officials, they’ve been leaning hard on him. Late in December, in a new filing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, rejecting his request for leniency, alleged that Cahill has “extensive ties to organized crime,” citing his frequent meetings with known mobsters. His lawyer, Sam Talkin, disputes the allegation: “Mr. Cahill does not have any ties to organized crime. The government cites ancient anecdotes and contradictory information in support of their claim.” Yet the evidence is convincing. And it might be connected to a wave of guilty pleas last month by 11 Gambino crime family members and associates in a separate case.

The Albany-based New York State Building and Construction Trades Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, represents more than 200,000 unionized workers in the construction industry. As council head for some two decades until his departure last fall, James W. Cahill, now 71, a resident of Rockland County, N.Y., had the ability to advance or block large-scale public works projects, thanks to his close relationships to with leading state and local politicians. If member unions needed work, he got them work, no matter what the cost to taxpayers. About a half-dozen years ago, for example, he persuaded the State of New York to enter into a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for the $4 billion reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge connecting Rockland and Westchester Counties across the Hudson River. A PLA is a prehire agreement that reserves public works job slots for union members. In all, during his tenure he secured more than $45 billion worth of such contracts. On the downside, Cahill’s deal-making may have involved the criminal underworld.  

According to federal prosecutors, Cahill and ten officials of Locals 200 and 638 of his home union, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, since October 2018 had received bribes totaling over $100,000 from nonunion contractors in return for bid-rigging in these contractors’ favor. This pay-for-play practice is illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act and “honest services fraud” statutes. Cahill was caught on a wiretap advising a reluctant employer, “If you become union, you’ll have 12 fucking guys on your back.” The employer relented and paid the bribe. In exchange, Cahill promised to cover for the employer in the event he got in trouble for using nonunion labor on a project in Nassau County, Long Island. Cahill would be arrested and indicted on October 1 for taking bribes from nonunion contractors. Union Corruption Update described this case in detail soon after it broke.

But the corruption apparently went deeper than payoffs. Prosecutors are now saying that Cahill was extensively involved with organized criminals. In a six-page filing opposing his request for bail leniency, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Swergold stated that Cahill was tight with mobsters. “Cahill has deep ties to leading members of organized crime who are known to engage in acts of violence and intimidation, which poses a threat to potential witnesses in this case,” wrote Swergold. The evidence here is more than fragmentary.

On March 13, 2020, federal agents recorded a conversation in which Cahill could be heard explaining to an unnamed cooperating witness about his longstanding ties to the Westies, the Gambino crime family, and a Serbian crime syndicate known as Grupo Amerika. “John Gotti was ‘like this’ with my brother and brother-in-law and this guy, Bosko,” Cahill told the witness. “That was his crew. That was his Irish crew.” “John Gotti,” of course, is the infamous Gambino boss who died in 2002. The brother and brother-in-law, respectively, are Mickey Cahill, a reputed member of the Westies, and Buddy Leahy, another Westie. “Bosko” is one Bosko Radonjic, a former head of the Westies who died in 2011.

Radonjic, born and raised in Serbia, would seem an unlikely figure here, considering that the Westies, established in the 1960s in West Side Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, were overwhelmingly ethnic Irish. Timing was everything. He seized control of that mob in the late-80s after various members were sent packing to prison for murder and other offenses. In 1992, facing criminal charges for bribing a juror with $60,000 during John Gotti’s 1987 racketeering murder trial, he fled the U.S. for Serbia. The charges eventually would be dropped after the star witness, former Gotti underboss Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, was arrested for drug offenses. During the conversation of last March 13, Cahill at one point referred to Radonjic’s understudy, “Michael Michael.” This would be Mileta Miljanic, reputed leader of Grupo Amerika. “He’s my guy,” Cahill said of him. Disturbingly, Cahill also identified Miljanic as a member of a “mass murdering crew.” Cahill boasted of his intervention following a death threat issued by Miljanic to a nephew of Cahill. “If you bother him,” Cahill allegedly said, “I’m gonna go away from yous. I won’t talk to yous. I’m done.” Prosecutors say Cahill met with Mijanic “on numerous occasions.”

Sam Talkin, Cahill’s attorney, believes the accusations are false. “Mr. Cahill denied he has any association with organized crime,” said Talkin. “The Westies have been defunct for three decades. And John Gotti has been dead for nearly two decades. That sums up the accuracy of the government’s allegations.” But the evidence is more than circumstantial. Indeed, if anything, the government’s case may be stronger in the wake of guilty pleas from 11 defendants to racketeering conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice and related offenses this January in a separate New York City construction industry case also involving Gambino and Serbian mobsters. Unlike the case of Cahill and company, which was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, this one was under the jurisdiction of the Eastern District. And it didn’t directly involve organized labor. But the potential overlap is there.

Leading the pack of convicted defendants in the Eastern District case were Andrew Campos, a captain in the Gambino crime family, and Vincent Fiore, a Gambino soldier. “Andrew Campos and members of his crew carried out fraudulent schemes to infiltrate the construction industry and earn millions of dollars in criminal proceeds,” remarked the Justice Department following Campos’ plea on January 15. Court records show that Campos, Fiore and several other individuals, operators of a carpentry firm called CWC Contracting Corp., allegedly had avoided making deductions for payroll tax withholdings and payments. Additionally, the defendants engaged in a money-laundering scheme in which checks from a CWC account were paid for nonexistent work. CWC also paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to an unnamed real estate company. The proceeds of these and other schemes were used for various unauthorized purposes such as construction of Campos’ house. At sentencing, Campos and Fiore face up to 20 years in prison. They and the other defendants have agreed to pay a combined $1.6 million in restitution.

In both cases, Serbian ethnics worked closely with the Gambinos. Defendants in the CWC case include Mark Kocaj, John Simonlacaj, Frank Tarul and Michael Tarul – all Serbian surnames. While this alone does not prove a relationship between the two cases, especially given that the CWC case does not directly involve unions, the possibility is there and needs to be investigated. Mob control over much of the New York construction industry is an open secret.